Singular "they": the editors' decision

The Baltimore Sun

When the editors of the Associated Press Stylebook announced to the American Copy Editors Society that the stylebook was dropping the over/more than distinction, there was a great outcry from editors and journalism professors who felt that the props had been kicked out from under them.

When at the most recent ACES conference David Minthorn of the AP was asked about permitting singular they, he essentially brushed it off as not a serious issue.* But, as Anne Curzan writes for the Chronicle of Higher Education’s Lingua Franca blog, discussion of singular they is busting out all over this spring.

And there are reactions. The people who have been schooled to loathe singular they despise it with a visceral reaction. “NO!” they scream in all caps. “NEVER!” they proclaim, vowing to die in the last ditch for this one.

Sit tibi terra levis.**

Professor Curzan, Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of English at the University of Michigan and associate dean for academic programs and initiatives, has written one of the single most compact, concise and sensible articles on singular they to date. I encourage you to use the link above to read it in its entirety

She says that the "Can singular they be used?” question is nonsense, because singular they has been in regular use in spoken English and informal prose for centuries. To challenge it for ambiguity is also nonsense, because ambiguity is sometimes the point, and besides, all pronouns are subject to potential ambiguity. And to challenge it for its informality is a circular argument, because editors, people like me, have been spending entire careers taking it out of formal, published prose.

The only real question concerning singular they, she argues, is “whether we should and will let they be used in its singular form in formal, edited prose without comment. That decision is within our control.”

As I have mentioned before, I have been exercising that control for a long time, allowing singular they through, without a peep of protest from readers. And in a very modest stab at corpus research, I discovered that singular they is easy to find in edited prose in reputable publications.

So to my colleagues laboring under the buzzing fluorescents at newspapers, magazines, websites, agencies, and organizations, I say, look at the arguments, examine the evidence, repeat my experiment, and see for yourselves whether rewriting all those singular theys has been, continues to be, and will increasingly become, pointless.

 

 

*Minthorn, we’re coming for you, and we’re going to wear you down.

**May the earth rest lightly upon you, a classic Latin epitaph.

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